Tag Archives: Archie Brown

Archie Brown – Donald Trump and the strong leader illusion

This is a guest post by Archie Brown, Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford. It is based on his book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, Vintage, 2015)

We don’t need to fall back on anecdotal evidence to be aware that among the factors contributing to Donald Trump’s electoral success was the high value voters attached to electing a strong leader and to the perception that Trump looked the part. Survey data, based on Morning Consult/Politico exit polls, suggested that the significance of the presidential candidate appearing to meet that yardstick was twice as salient a factor in the 2016 election as in 2012. Of those questioned in the exit poll last November, 36 per cent, as against 18 per cent four years earlier, said that what they wanted, above all, was a strong leader. The ‘strong leader’ criterion was valued more than twice as highly as wanting someone who ‘cares about people like me’ or someone who ‘shares my values’.[1]

We should, of course, never forget that but for the vagaries of an electoral system in which the candidate who won almost three million more votes than the forty-fifth president was deemed to be the loser, Trump would not be in the White House. For the second time this century, the electoral college provided startling evidence of the ‘majority-constraining’ features of the American political system, eloquently analyzed by Alfred Stepan and the late Juan Linz – indeed, a majority-defying result.[2] In any other democracy the candidate constitutionally decreed to be the loser in 2016 would, as in 2000, have been the clear winner. The result brings back to mind one of Robert Dahl’s last books, How Democratic is the American Constitution? His answer, if it can be summarised in two words, was: Not very.[3]

Nevertheless, Trump in 2016 had substantial support, and it included backing from people in social groups who might have been expected to look to the Democrats for succour rather than to a billionaire property-developer. The image Trump projected of nationalist strongman, reiterated in his inaugural speech, resonated with many of those who had been left behind by globalization. That particular aspect of Trump’s candidacy counted for less with those who had been beneficiaries of vastly increased inequality but, in the interests of becoming still richer, they voted for lower taxation.

My focus here, however, is on the ‘strong leader’ aspect of Trump’s success. I have argued elsewhere that the cult of the strong leader which, most obviously, thrives in dictatorships, has its echoes in contemporary democracies, with a craving for the strong hand of a powerful individual not confined to the brainwashed or cowed subjects of an authoritarian or totalitarian ruler.[4] The presence of Donald Trump in the White House has brought to the forefront of political discussion issues of leadership style and the big question of the extent to which one individual can or should dominate the political process in a democracy.

In this brief essay, I address three questions: First, what does it mean to call someone a strong leader? Second, having established the criteria, is Trump really a strong leader in that sense? Third, is strength the quality we should especially value in a political leader or are there other attributes we should esteem more highly and which contribute more to good leadership in a democracy?

The notion of a strong leader is open to a range of interpretations, but when we compare various presidents and prime ministers, we generally, and perfectly reasonably, describe as a strong leader one who maximises his (or her) personal power, dominates his government, political party and a wide swath of public policy, and asserts his right to take most of the big decisions.

Donald Trump has, indeed, shown every sign that he intends to be a strong leader in that sense. He has not hesitated to criticize the Republican Party establishment and has made policy pronouncements on the hoof, without regard either to predominant opinion within his own party (on Russia, for example, including praise for Vladimir Putin as a strong leader) or even to long-standing  bipartisan foreign policy positions in Washington (as on China and Taiwan). His Cabinet appointments have been idiosyncratic, with a number of appointees lacking any obvious qualifications for the job, other than apparently enjoying the trust of president.

Deliberately projecting himself as a strong leader, Trump has verged on the messianic. In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention he told his audience there and in the country that “I am your voice”. Brushing aside his lack of political experience, he said that he knew the system better than anyone else which was why “I alone can fix it”. In his hyberbolic presidential inauguration speech, he promised to determine not only the course of America but also of the world “for many, many years to come”, and claimed that his supporters had “become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before”.  The fact that turnout at his own inaugural ceremony fell far below that which welcomed Barack Obama in 2009, and that the world has seen many larger movements that have escaped his attention, was not allowed to get in the way of the rhetoric.

I have no difficulty in accepting that Trump meets the criteria set out above for designating someone as a “strong leader”. (The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was among those who lost no time in describing him as such in the congratulatory message he sent following the presidential election.) The bigger question is whether we should value the strength of a domineering individual above other leadership attributes and whether strong leadership is the same as effective leadership.

The self-consciously strong leader is, in a democracy, rarely as strong as he thinks he is. In a parliamentary system an overweening leader often loses office before the government’s term of office has run its course as a result of a revolt by enough members of his or her own party in the legislature. It happened to the three British prime ministers in the last ninety years who attempted to concentrate the most power in their own hands and who acquired an extravagant belief in the superiority of their own judgement over that of their colleagues: Neville Chamberlain, forced to resign in 1940; Margaret Thatcher, ousted in 1990; and Tony Blair, who was obliged to yield the premiership to his colleague and rival, Gordon Brown, in 2007.

In some ways, it is easier to justify power-maximization by an American president than by a prime minister in a parliamentary democracy because the president has been directly elected, has a larger personal mandate than anyone else in the country (especially when he has, as Trump has not, won the popular vote), and because of the large number of veto-players in the American system with its constitutional checks and balances and powerful organized interests. All these make it difficult for a president to dominate the domestic agenda (he has more room for manoeuvre in foreign policy) and so can be justifications for an incumbent augmenting the powers of the office in whatever way he constitutionally can.

Yet, we should reject the temptation to believe that the more power one individual leader wields, the more we should be impressed by that leader. Strong leadership, in the sense of concentrating maximal power in the hands of one person, is far from being identical with good leadership. There are only twenty-four hours in the day of even the strongest leader. The more that person tries to do individually, the less time he or she has to weigh the evidence and gain an understanding of the complexity and nuances of each issue. The self-consciously strong leader is often tempted to demonstrate strength by coming to quick decisions. Even in a crisis, however, it is often possible to take time, and to listen to the widest range of opinion, before reaching a conclusion. Doing so can be a life-or-death matter.

If President John F. Kennedy had come to a quick decision when the Cuban missile crisis broke in 1962, the world would almost surely have been engulfed in catastrophic nuclear war. From the outset the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocated a comprehensive military strike on Cuba.[5] Wiser counsels eventually prevailed.  It was only decades later that the United States discovered what the likely consequences would have been of accepting the military advice. They learned that already there were tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba for use against the US in the event of an invasion and, moreover, that Soviet ships approaching Cuba had submarine escorts with commanders empowered to fire nuclear torpedoes at American targets without awaiting authorization from Moscow.[6]

It is important that any American administration – indeed, any government in a democracy – should contain people of independent political standing, and, preferably, of great and varied experience. Within the government they should not engage in self-censorship, adjusting their advice to the perceived predilections of the top leader, even if that person is the President of the United States. They should be prepared to subject his conclusions to serious scrutiny and to provide counter-arguments. No president or prime minister in a democracy was ever selected because he or she was believed to have a monopoly of wisdom. A democracy worthy of the name has many leaders, not one.

A leader – in a democracy as well as an authoritarian regime – who tries to monopolize power will generally do more harm than good. Far more valuable qualities of a head of government than ‘strength’, as I have defined it, include integrity, intelligence, collegiality, a questioning mind, willingness to seek disparate views, ability to absorb information, good memory, flexibility, courage, and (if we are lucky) vision. The last-mentioned of these qualities means, at a minimum, an ability to distinguish what is in the long-term interests of the country from what may play well in the traditional and social media today.

While governments collectively are not immune from making foolish and damaging decisions, the likelihood of calamitously bad decision-making is substantially greater under unconstrained, or only weakly constrained, personal rule. A head of government should feel the need to persuade colleagues rather than foreclose the discussion by pulling rank. To pine for one-person dominance and to believe in the efficacy of such leadership is worship of a false god. Rather than succumb to the fanciful allure of the strong leader, we would do well to relearn the advantages of a more collegial, collective and dispersed leadership.


[1] ‘Early exit polls: Voters say they want a “strong leader”’, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/exit-polls-what-do-voters-want-23095.

[2] Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, ‘Comparative Perspectives on Inequality and the Quality of Democracy in the United States’, Perspectives on Politics, Vol.. 9, No. 4, 2011, pp. 841-856. See also Nannerl Keohane, ‘Leadership, Equality and Democracy’, Daedalus, Vol.. 145, No. 3, 2016, pp. 8-20.

[3] Robert A. Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution? (2nd ed., Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2003).

[4] Archie Brown, The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (Bodley Head, London, and Basic Books, New York, 2014; Vintage paperback, 2015); Brown, ‘Questioning the Mythology of the Strong Leader’, Leadership, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/174271501559066; and Brown, ‘Against the Führerprinzip: For Collective Leadership’, Daedalus, Vol. 145, No. 3, 2016, pp. 109-123. See also one of the last articles of the late Anthony King in the same issue of Daedalus, ‘In Favor of “Leader-Proofing”’, pp. 124-137; and S. Alexander Haslam,, Stephen D. Reicher and Michael J. Platow, The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power (Psychology Press, Hove and New York, 2011).

[5] Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2000), pp. 180-181.

[6] William J. Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2015), p. 4.